Groups » Understanding the Legal Variations between Murder and Homicide

It is against the law to inflict harm or to injure or kill another human being. The term 'Homicide' is used to define the killing of any human being by another but it does not refer to the law or charge of murder and they are not the same thing. Understanding the difference between categorizing a homicide versus the felony charge of murder is important when organizing your defense strategy.

The legal consequences vary between an instance of homicide versus a formal charge of murder. There are many situations where a homicide can occur and liability and intent are not malicious. Accidental homicide can carry a much lighter penalty as compared to deliberate or pre-meditated manslaughter, and we will delineate the difference between the two.

The Legal Perspective on Homicide

We mentioned that there are instances where homicide may occur but not be the result of a malicious intention. The existence of the term creates a clear distinction between an act of violence with intent and an accidental death or involuntary manslaughter and part of that distinction also rests in a more abstract, moral judgment of the character and past behavior and misdemeanors that may demonstrate a pattern of violence.

In the case of manslaughter, the law is clear that the actions taken by the accused were directly attributable to the death of another individual. This is called "actus reus" which is essentially proof that a death did occur and that the actions which caused the death were responsible. Proving the intention to harm or "mens rea" requires evidence that the accused planned to deliberately cause death and refers to the importance of the presence of premeditation, which separates homicide and manslaughter from murder charges.

In some cases a homicide may be the result of a violent act (such as a fight or an argument) and cause death, but if the defense can demonstrate that there was never an intention to cause death from the onset (and that death was not a desired outcome for the defendant) a case of manslaughter can be made.

Examples of justifiable and accidental homicide include:

- The death of a criminal suspect by police or authorities
- Negligence during motor vehicle accidents or equipment operation leading to death
- Death in the course of serious threat to safety and for physical self defense
- Mercy killing or death of a terminal or incapacitated family member
- When committed in the defense of a family member
- When committed in military service

It is important to note that the law does not condone homicide under any circumstance but rather allows for a different definition separate from murder, where malice is not demonstrated. When a charge of manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter is brought against an accused, the burden to prove that there was no mal intent is an important part of the legal defense. That the death of the second party was not the deliberate or desired outcome of any act of violence against the deceased.

Understanding the Charge of Murder

Where death was clearly the intention and outcome, the accused will be charged with murder which is an intentional killing that is unlawful and lacks any legal justification, and one that is committed with forethought or pre-planning and meditation. A strategic plan is not however required for the prosecution to pursue a charge of murder. A violent action (such as multiple gun shots, battery or knife wounds) against the deceased would indicate a repeated action with the expectation of causing death. In other words from a legal perspective, it is hard to argue that the defendant did not intend to kill the deceased if the measure of violence was so extreme that death was a likely outcome.

The charge of murder indicates that the accused has demonstrated a blatant lack of regard for the value of human life. However some circumstances are viewed as even more offensive in the eyes of the law, depending on the method and actions taken by the accused. For instance, a crime of passion may be viewed by the court and jury in a different way than a paid murder for financial gain, such as execution style which is common in organized crime. The less reason the accused had to commit the murder, the more reckless the decision is deemed in the eye of the law and designations between first and second degree murder exist to further categorize the crimes.

First Degree Murder Charges

The law considers individuals who are capable of planning and then carefully executing a murder to be a gross threat to society. A first degree murder charge reflects a clear demonstration of aforethought and malice for an intentional killing. Evidence of pre-planning and even discussion of the method of murder is required to establish a charge of first degree murder. The use of explosions or complicated equipment in the execution of the murder plan is also considered to be evidence of aforethought due to the complexity of preparations, and supports a first degree murder charge.

Committing a felony offense in which one or more people are killed can also constitute a charge of first degree murder. Criminals who are shot and killed during a robbery for instance, can be charged with the murder of their co-conspirators as participation in the felony is grounds for reckless endangerment of a second party. The mandatory minimum sentence for first degree murder is higher than second degree murder charges and in some States and depending on local law, a first degree murder charge can lead to a sentence of capital punishment by lethal injection or life in prison.

Second Degree Murder Charges

There are three situations that constitute a charge of second degree murder. In all cases the absence of aforethought (or premeditation) is evident even though the actions caused a deliberate death. An individual charged with second degree murder may have understood that there was a probability of causing death if he/she engaged in violent actions but there was no plan to execute specific actions to cause a terminal outcome.

Second degree murder charges occur in one of three situations:

- An impulsive killing is completed without premeditation but involving malice aforethought (the desire to inflict injury was present before the action commenced).
- There was evidence of a depraved indifference to human life.
- There was evidence of a desire to inflict significant injury and bodily harm.

Second degree murder charges rarely result in capital punishment but can carry lengthy sentences, depending on the details of the crime and the State jurisdiction. The presence of previous criminal history can also increase the likelihood of extended prison terms and also civil liability for wrongful death suits in addition to the felony charge. A sentencing of life in prison can also occur with a second degree murder charge, but it is less common than with the charge of first degree murder.

After understanding the above murder charges, it becomes mandatory for one who is facing such type of legal case to consult with some experienced and professional criminal defense lawyer in his/her local area who can assist or guide in the proceedings of legal case.


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